Towers of Debt

Grain Elevators in the Southern Plains Landscape

photo dalhart elevator

[Photo credit: Author, Dalhart, TX, 2014]

In 1936 Gertrude Stein wrote, “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.” Almost 70 years later journalist Dan Morgan offers a simple, provocative message, saying “Study grain long enough and the world shrinks.” While these two statements might seem contradictory, both accurately describe the relationship between rural Plains communities, the land, and the agricultural economy during the twentieth century. As early as the 1860s, large-scale monocrop agriculture and sale on international markets were mainstays in the rural American economy. Simultaneously, agricultural America actively sought to maintain a sense of local community and rural autonomy in a changing world. In one seemingly simple, beige package, the great terminal elevators of the American Plains are symbolic of this conflict.

Here I focus specifically on grain elevators in the Southern Plains region – stretching from Western Texas into Oklahoma and Kansas — as a case study that allows me to combine analysis of the elevator’s economic history and its visual relationship with the landscape. Encompassing the flattest and most arid regions in the “great American desert,” Southern Plains ecology was most catastrophically altered by twentieth century changes in American agriculture, with over harvesting resulting in erosion, drought, and the Dust Bowl.

The building of hundreds of new grain elevators during this period marked the Southern Plains skyline as a reminder of the region’s massive boom in agricultural production. In the1930s, reeling from the combined effect of rock-bottom grain prices and ecological disaster,  farmers embarked on a program of large-scale, cooperative elevator building and acquisition that continued until the 1970s. This program represented an effort to restore order to both an industry and a landscape seemingly flying out of  control.

OWI photo grain storage

[Photo Credit: Office of War Information Photo Collection, Library of Congress]


My project maps the expansion of the elevator co-op movement, tracking the cycles of grain production, flows of capital, and construction of towering elevators.

Below is a link to preliminary map, done in Google Maps, that uses BNSF Railroad data to locate co-op elevators from the 1920-1930s.

I characterize the co-op elevator movement as both an act of economic defiance as well as a symbolic reclamation of the visual and spatial “high ground” – elevators helped to shore up rural America in the face of continuing economic decline. Embodying the importance of industrial commerce to isolated rural communities and acting as nostalgic symbols of a mythological American agricultural empire, grain elevators are powerful, iconic symbols for both the local populations who interact daily with them and for observers captivated by their size and unique shape.

Further Reading

  • Donna A. Barnes, Farmers In Rebellion: The Rise and Fall of the Southern Farmers Alliance and People’s Party in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).
  • William Cronin, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, (W. & W. Publishing, 1992).
  • Frank Gholke, Measures of Emptiness, (Baltimore: The John’s Hopkins University Press, 1992).
  • Lisa Mahar-Keplinger, Grain Elevators (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993).
  • Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America, or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind (New York: Vintage, 1936).